Archival research sheds new light on Chaucer court case

Last week our Principal Medieval Records Specialist, Euan Roger, brought to light new research surrounding the 14th-century poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, and his relationship with the daughter of a London baker, Cecily Chaumpaigne. 

A legal document discovered in the early 1870s suggested that Chaucer had been charged with the rape of Chaumpaigne in 1380. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from ‘all manner of actions related to my raptus’ – a term that can denote ‘rape’ or ‘abduction’ in medieval legal terminology.  

Working with Sebastian Sobecki, a Professor of Later Medieval English Literature at the University of Toronto, Euan uncovered two new documents which challenged this assumption.  

Their research revealed that Chaucer and Chaumpaigne were in fact co-defendants in a court case which was brought against Chaucer and Chaumpaigne by Chaumpaigne’s former employer, Thomas Staundon, under the Statute of Labourers.  

In this particular case, ‘raptus’ represented the act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s employment outside the terms of her contract to work for Chaucer.  

Although the new discovery cannot rule out the possibility of physical or sexual violence, the new evidence shows that the specific legal accusations brought against Chaucer were related to a labour dispute, rather than a charge of rape or physical abduction.   

Euan and Sebastian revealed their discovery in an online seminar organised by The National Archives on 11 October. The presentation included commentary from leading Chaucer scholars and had an international audience with over 700 attendees. 

The findings were also published in a special edition of The Chaucer Review, alongside responses from three Chaucer scholars, a new biography of Chaumpaigne and an article on the importance of understudied legal collections for medieval literature and historical studies.  

The discovery led to great online discussion and was covered by The Telegraph and The New York Times.  

Find out more about the discovery in a blog by Euan and Sebastian.